How your horse’s saddle fits its back is important. Poor saddle fit can cause behavioral problems because the horse will react to pain and discomfort from pressure points, rubbing and pinching. When buying a saddle it’s best if you own the horse first. To buy a saddle first is like buying shoes before you know what size your feet are.
Take your horse out and assess its conformation, and especially its top line before choosing a saddle and then when you are trying a saddle out, look at these four points to assess the saddle with you on the ground, and then with you in the saddle. This will help you find the right saddle for your horse. Although these guidelines were written with a western saddle in mind, most points apply equally to English saddles.
The Four Critical Saddle Fitting Points
There are four critical points of the horse's anatomy that impact saddle fit.
- Point of Hip/Loins
Ideally, the withers of the horse is level with, or a little above, the highest point of the rump (or croup). Withers that are higher or lower than this would need special consideration when choosing a saddle.
To check the clearance at the withers, place your hand on edge and slide your fingers between the withers and the gullet (with no saddle pad). You should be able to place between two and four stacked fingers into this space.
Large shouldered horses can be constricted by a saddle with a bar width and angle that is too narrow with the saddle forcing the shoulders against the saddle tree bars. On a thin-shouldered horse, a saddle that's too wide can ride forward onto the shoulder blades causing discomfort and restricting movement.
To check the shoulder clearance, slide your hand between the fleece lining of the saddle and the horse's shoulder (with a saddle pad). Your hand should be able to slide in easily. Ideally, you should also be able to do this with a rider in the saddle.
A horse that has an overly narrow, or conversely, an overly flat back, can find certain saddles to be uncomfortable. A horse whose back is "downhill," with his rump higher than his withers, can end up with the saddle slipping forward causing soreness.
Saddles are designed with a gullet channel (the open space between the bars) that is intended to bridge the spine. A saddle that's too wide for a horse can result in weight being placed directly on the spine. Sweat marks are a good way to tell if your saddle is placing weight on your horse's spine. When you take your saddle off, the entire spine should be dry.
Point of Hip/Loins
Horses with shorter than average backs can find the saddle's skirts digging into their loins. The skirt should follow the contour of the horse's back and not extend past the horse's loins. With short-backed horses, a round skirt will be the best choice.
When assessing saddle fit, start by evaluating how the saddle relates to each of these four critical points of the horse's anatomy.