The Importance of Saddle Fitting
Let me start off by saying that there is no such thing as a perfectly fitting saddle. A saddle is a static object, with a rigid structure inside called the "tree," which holds its shape and does not bend or twist. A horse's back is extremely dynamic, not only as it is moving, but also throughout his life. A horse’s conformation, weight, conditioning and muscling is constantly changing. Understand that a horse may require many different saddles throughout it's life stages, and disciplines. You are his advocate, and that job is never done, never quit looking and assessing, or consider the saddle fitting job 100% done forever. When your horse gains/ loses weight, begins to age and lose his topline or becomes a hard keeper, comes out of training and begins to stand around and lose muscle tone, or when going into training and gains it back, will all change the way a saddle fits.
The good news is that it is a rapidly expanding area of interest for the equestrian community, and people are beginning to understand how to identify a comfortable fit. Fortunately, The Right Fit has an excellent choice of saddle pads and styles to help improve minor saddle fit issues, when appropriate.
The converse is also true - a good fitting saddle can be made to fit poorly with improper padding. So it's always important to have a saddle fitter assess multiple points of saddle fit, to include the many different contributing factors when it comes to a properly fitting saddle, that keeps the horse and rider safe, balanced and comfortable.
We recommend "The Horse's Pain Free Back and Saddle Fit Book," written by Joyce Harman, DVM, MRCVS
Proper saddle fit has become an area of horsemanship that is developing rapidly- and for excellent reason!
Horses have suffered in silence under poor fitting saddles for far too long! It is important to note that poorly fitting saddles cause problems not only for the horse, but for the rider as well. However, the increasing emphasis on proper saddle fit has caused many people to educate themselves and go on a quest for the “perfect” saddle for their horse.
The goal of proper saddle fit is to identify a saddle that fits both participants – the horse and the rider. If either horse or rider are uncomfortable, any imbalance in one can transfer to the other. Therefore, the saddle must not cause the horse pain, or trap its movement, and also must not cause the rider to brace from discomfort.
The general purpose of a saddle is to distribute the riders weight evenly over the horses topline without putting any pressure on the spine, so as to enable the horse to carry the weight comfortably, for longer periods, and allow the shoulders and loin to move freely. The bottom of the pommel should never rub the withers, as cranial nerve #11 is located just behind the shoulder and can cause tremendous pain and long term damage. Also make sure no part of the horses back past vertebrae #18 is carrying any of the riders weight, so as not bruise the kidneys and/or ovaries by pressing too harshly on the loin. The rigging should be set correctly so that it does not interfere with the elbow and the deltoid muscle, nor pull the saddle out of position.
This saddle is sitting level on the horse's back, the pad is the correct length, the loin is not pressured, the saddle is positioned just behind the scapula, the rigging is correct, the cinch is the proper length, the gullet is open at the top to allow the shoulder to move freely. These are only the visual points of interest in saddle fitting.
Saddle fit requires an understanding of basic anatomy, some physics along with biomechanics of soundness to determine whether you have a good fit, and what is necessary to correct any fit issues that are identified. If you expect to have a comfortable ride, understand that fitting a moving horse is absolutely necessary! Always consult a qualified saddle fitter in your area for proper saddle fit evaluation. Know that having proper fitting tack, a comfortable happy horse and safe rides are all part of saddle fitting, which is your ongoing, lifelong responsibility. Your horse will thank you!
In order to keep your saddle balanced, distribute rider weight efficiently, and reduce pressure points of saddles with minor fit issues, or horses that are thin, or heavier riders I always recommend at least 1" thick pads, preferably more!
If you have a great fitting saddle, a horse is appropriately fit for current exercise, well muscled and has a great fitting saddle, and well balanced rider - you can use less padding!
The basics of a properly fitting western saddle are: The pommel should comfortably clear a horse’s withers by 2-3 fingers stacked vertically when placed on top of the unpadded withers, the bars should be wide enough to set on the back 1/4 of the shoulder so as to allow for free movement of the scapulars to pass under the front lip of the leather and slide comfortably back under the pommel, the pommel should not be so concave that it feels like a knob of pressure against the horses wither. The bar angles need to match the ribs from top to bottom so that the back extensor muscle doesn't become fatigued, pressured and begin to atrophy. In addition, the back end of the tree bars and saddle leather should never put pressure behind the 18th thoracic vertebrae. Doing so puts extraordinary amount of pressure on the transverse processes of the lumbar vertebrae, the horse's kidneys, and the ovaries in a mare.
The saddle tree and leather need to be the proper length and depth so as not to cause injury or restriction of movement. The saddle must be properly padded to either create or maintain front to back and left to right balance in order to provide good weight distribution while the horse is in motion. In a very summarized version, that is proper saddle fit. If you ride horses of different breeds or significantly different sizes, then you will likely need to invest in multiple saddles. A “Right Fit” saddle pad can be customized with shims quickly to allow your saddle to fit each horse you ride.
Gullet width (GW) is a separate area of fit than bar flare.
In Western saddles, the gullet width is measured on the bare tree by its manufacturer before the saddle is built. It is impossible to get an exact gullet measurement on a finished saddle! Finding the gullet width requires more than just a tape measure. A lot of times, knowing that particular company’s “standards” is how I determine the size. Sometimes I don’t know, so I have to make an educated measurement based on how fluffy the fleece is, how thick the leather is on the fleece, and approximately where the pommel meets the front bars.
In any case, this will help you understand how to measure gullet width on a saddle: https://www.therightfitequine.com/measuring-a-gullet-on-your-saddle#:~:text=Peek%20between%20the%20skirts%20in,side%20in%20the%20same%20place
This video is great! Talks about Western tree gullet width: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=1781047618589611
In the long term, maintaining a good weight and muscling, feeding on the ground instead of out of a hay net, doing belly press exercises and lunging over cavaletti will help keep a horse’s topline up, and keep them in good condition to carry a saddle and rider.
It is difficult to make an all-encompassing recommendation, as all saddles will fit a little bit differently. In the event you are saddle shopping, definitely plan to try a potential saddle on your horse before agreeing to purchase it, or arrange for a trial period whenever possible.
Hope this helps!
Go to my Facebook saddle fitting page to read dozens of saddle fitting tips that have been posted over the years.