Saddle fit is an extremely important aspect of equine management and welfare. If a saddle is improperly fit to a horse’s back certain health concerns such as back pain and lameness can occur. The saddle should be assessed both on and off the horse as well as before, during, and after exercise. Some saddle issues only present themselves when a horse performs a certain maneuver so it is pertinent to be thorough in your assessment. It is also important to note that not all brands of saddles will fit all horses’ shapes, sizes, breeds, etc. Be aware that a horse’s back can change throughout the year depending on activity level and muscle development. This is why it’s a good idea to have your saddle checked at minimum once a year to make sure it is fitting your horse correctly and comfortably.
The first step to assessing saddle fit is to know the parts of the saddle. Below you will find images of both English and Western saddles with proper labeling of their respective components.
To begin, it is important to assess the saddle off the horse. Look for any obvious rips, tears, or fraying seams that might impact the overall safety of the saddle. Next place the saddle on its pommel on the ground and look down the gullet. Is the saddle symmetrical and straight? Or do you see the gullet gently veering off to one side?
Do the flaps seem equal on both sides? An uneven saddle like this could be from a twisted tree or even improper manufacturing. One study recently found that up to 35% of brand new saddles are not balanced correctly. Just because it is new doesn’t mean it was built correctly. If you have an English saddle and while it is in the same position take a look at the panels. Do you notice any lumps, bumps, or differences in size of the panels? Look at size, shape, and symmetry. Run you hand down each panel and feel for evenness of the flocking. Over time flocking can become compressed making it uneven or creating pressure points. A saddle fitter can make changes to the flocking to make them more comfortable for the horse. It is even possible to re-flock the entire saddle.
Next pick up your saddle and place the pommel on your hip. Then grab the cantle and gently but forcefully pull towards yourself. If you see a crease or buckling in the seat this could indicate a broken tree. If this is the case, unfortunately that saddle is most likely not repairable and should under no circumstance be used again. A broken tree can injure both horse and rider.
After looking the saddle over it is a good time to check your horse. If you noticed a harder point on your saddle be sure to look at the corresponding area that comes into contact with it on your horse. Look at his back from all angles to see if you observe any differences in muscling, lumps or bumps, areas of swelling, or white hair.
White patches of hair on a generally dark coated horse can indicate areas of pressure from poor saddle fit. We have also observed small, hard bumps in the saddle area that generally occur with a saddle not fitting quite right. Next, gently glide your hand down your horse’s back and feel for areas of heat/inflammation or focal areas of pain. These are symptoms of a potentially ill-fitting saddle.
The next step of this process is to put the saddle on your horse without pads or blankets. Almost as important as how your saddle fits your horse is where to place the saddle on your horse’s back.
If the saddle is placed too far forward it can infringe upon scapular motion and cause pain as well as restricted movement or gait. Placing the saddle too far back can also cause discomfort for your horse. The tree of the saddle should not extend past the last rib of the horse. In addition, note where the girth is situated before, during, and after exercise. It should hang vertically from the saddle, perpendicular to the ground, without interfering with the elbow. If the girth is too far forward, it can pull the saddle forward and add pressure onto the withers as well as cause rubs or sores on the loose skin behind your horse’s elbow.
While the saddle is on your horse’s back, and without the girth being on, go through these next steps. Starting at the withers, place your hand between your horse’s back and the saddle.
Then slide your hand along the panel of the saddle and feel for even pressure along your horse’s back. Saddle fitters often have a pressure mat that can be placed on your horse before the saddle to assess the amount of pressure being applied and in what areas. If the curvature of the tree and/or the panels doesn’t correspond with the natural curve of your horse’s back then the saddle will “bridge” and you will feel a gap in contact. With your hand still under the saddle check the channel width, or the space between the panels. This space needs to be wide enough to allow free movement of the dorsal spinous processes of your horse’s back. Be sure to check pommel clearance as well. You should be able to easily fit 2-3 fingers between the withers of your horse and the pommel. Less than 2 fingers is generally too wide and more than 3 fingers means the tree is too narrow. It is critical to check this area again when the rider is on the horse and standing in the stirrups as this places maximum pressure on the saddle and your horse’s back. While your hand is up towards the front of the saddle slide your fingers between the side of the withers and the tree points to check tree width. If your fingers are pinched in this position the tree is too narrow for your horse. Be aware that when you add blankets or pads under the saddle this can narrow the fit even more. If the tree is too wide you may lose pommel clearance and the saddle may perch on your horse’s withers. A tree that is too wide will also often push the rider forward in his or her seat and will appear as if the cantle is higher than the pommel.
Next look at the alignment of the deepest point of the saddle. This is where you can perform the “lipstick” or “chapstick” test. Place a tube of chapstick perpendicular to your horse’s spine and see where it comes to rest on the seat of the saddle. For English saddles this point should be in the middle of the saddle. For Western saddles this point should be in the caudal or posterior 1/3rd of the saddle. Finally, try to rock the saddle back and forth, and side to side.
Slight movement is fine, but if there is excessive rocking then it is most likely that the tree is too wide or simply the wrong shape for your horse. Other important aspects to consider are if the saddle is appropriate for the horse, if the saddle fits the rider, and if the rider can remain balanced while riding in the saddle.
The final step in this process is to check the fit of the saddle again during and after riding. Also be sure to note the position of the saddle pads before and after work. Pads that slide back or ride forward indicate poor saddle or pad fit and can create pressure points on your horse’s back. During riding watch how the saddle sits especially between gaits and over jumps. A horse’s back must move and change to perform these maneuvers, and the saddle has to accommodate for these motions without moving excessively. After exercise, evaluate sweat patterns on your horse’s back and saddle pad.
Non-uniform sweat marks or dry spots can indicate uneven pressure points. Palpate your horse’s back again after riding to notice any areas of swelling, ruffled hair, or areas of pain. A big indicator that your horse may be uncomfortable under saddle can be observed during the saddling process. Does your horse exhibit unusual behavior changes during saddling or the saddle fit process? Horses that are uncomfortable with ill-fitting saddles may pin their ears, gnash their teeth, try to kick or bite, toss their head, or perform other undesired behaviors.
If you have gone through this process and still feel that your horse is uncomfortable when riding have someone watch you ride. Are you as the rider staying balanced in your seat? Do your legs stay in their proper position? Do you feel as if you have extra up and down or side to side movements? Do you feel like to have more weight in one stirrup versus the other? A balanced and fit rider helps the horse maintain proper body position and allows him to perform the tasks that are being asked of him. Another option is to have your horse’s back evaluated and checked for chiropractic subluxations. A poorly fitting saddle can cause subluxations in your horse, or it may be that your horse needs to be adjusted and the added weight of saddle and/or rider is exacerbating the condition.
In summary, there are a couple general principles that should be true when assessing saddle fit in your horse:
- There should be no focal points of contact. The saddle should have even contact along the length of your horse’s back.
- The gullet should completely clear the horse’s spinous processes to allow freedom of movement.
- The saddle should not move excessively when it is placed and secured on the horse’s back, but it should also not restrict the horse’s movement.
- The fit of the saddle should allow the rider to be balanced at all times.
If you have never had your horse professionally evaluated for saddle fit that might be the best first step in the saddle fitting process. Then if you have additional questions or concerns Dr. Kyla or Dr. Maya are more than willing to evaluate your horse’s back and see if a chiropractic adjustment may help. We can also check your saddle with you at any regularly scheduled appointment.
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