The perfect fit

Finding the right saddle for your horse is a mix of high-tech and hands-on approaches.Let’s start with a brief refresher on saddle fit.

Traditional saddles are built on a “tree”, which is the saddles skeleton. Trees come in various materials and designs, as well as different lengths and widths.

To fit well, a tree shape’s must mirror the horse’s back conformation; wither height, back length, width and outline, shoulder angles and prominence.

Just as too-narrow or too-wide shoes hurt your feet, a saddle whose tree is too narrow or too wide impairs your horse’s back. Insufficient wither clearance causes pain. A tree that’s too narrow or whose shape doesn’t suit the horse’s back might cause the saddle to “bridge” – putting pressure mostly on the front and back instead of distributing it throughout the saddle’s panels. A short-backed horse with a too-long saddle tree might experience uncomfortable pressure in the loin region. If the tree points (the down yard projections off the front of an English saddle) are too narrow for your horse’s shoulder, they can hamper his shoulder blades’ freedom and his forelimbs’ forward movement. Even billet (cinch) strap placement matters; if they don’t coincide with where the “girth groove” on his barrel naturally wants to position the girth or cinch, the saddle might shift or he might become girthy or cold-backed.

Of these fitting problems, bridging is probably the most common.A saddle must fit both rider and horse. The placement of stirrup bars, knee rolls or thigh blocks forces the rider into an incorrect position-which increases the horse’s risk of developing back pain.Ditto for a saddle whose seat is too small for the rider’s bottom. (Tip: the deeper the seat, the larger the seat size might have to be to accommodate the rider)

Here’s what to keep an eye out for in your saddle:

  • A twisted tree. A perfectly good saddle tree can become twisted if, for instance, a horse falls or rolls over it. Twisted saddles do not sit straight. Instead, they move from side to side with a twisting action, causing potentially damaging pressure on the horse’s back. 
  • Panel problems. Over flocked, lumpy, uneven or overly hard panels can cause pressure points on the horse’s back. Signs of these include swelling and/or patches of white hair, indicating the horse has been in extreme discomfort. ( In this situation, have a professional saddler re flock your panels properly, ideally you’d want your saddle completely re flocked every 2 years)    
  • A broken tree. Trees can break for a variety of reasons. A horse rolls over on the saddle, the metal becomes fatigued from constant flexing , or missing rivet heads cause flexing and cracking. NEVER repair or weld a broken tree as you will more the likely end up with another break, hard ridges or asymmetries.   
  • Poor flexible points. A flexible point is the leather cover over the otherwise unyielding point of the saddle tree. If the leather does not cover the point fully, it can be painful for the horse.  
  • Poor panel fillings. Sometimes when a saddle is re flocked, the materials used are lumpy and firm, which can cause uneven pressures throughout the panel.Look out for your horse’s as well as your own well-being when evaluating a new or used saddle. If purchasing a second-hand one, always have it assessed for its fit and safety