Saddle Fitting

There is so much talk these days about saddle fitting that it is enough to give one fits. Why is saddle fit so important? Until relatively recently, riders sat in saddles on a structure at the local tack shop and chose saddles that felt comfy for their own buns. Little consideration had been given to the comfort of the horse in the area of saddle fitting. Western competitors often won beautiful, expensive, name-brand saddles, awarded right then and there, whether they fit the horse or not. I wonder if the saddlemakers allowed trade-ins if the prize didn't fit. It may be that the typical Quarter horse has an almost universal body shape, but it is not likely that a given saddle will fit even most horses properly.

Some people say that it is the rare horse who has to wear a saddle for many hours on end, so why would saddle fit matter? First of all, there are many endurance horses and horses in other activities that do perform in a saddle for long hours. Second, even a short time wearing an ill-fitting saddle is too long. Think back on the last time you tried on a pair of shoes that didn't fit. Did it take more than a few steps, if any, to realize that they hurt? Back on the shelf they went. A pair of shoes may have rigidity in the soles, but they also have flexibility. With the saddle, however, there is rigidity in the tree, the skeleton of the saddle, which helps it keep its shape, support the weight of the rider in the stirrups and the seat, and withstand the yank of a galloping steer, while staying centered on the horse.

Says Dave Genadek, president of About the Horse, Inc., Minnesota, "Saddles affect the horse's ring of muscles. If one is improperly fit it will hurt the muscles along the top line and force the horse to hollow out his back, which means he cannot engage his hindquarters. In short, bad saddle fit can prevent collection. When you train a horse you are always trying to stretch the top line and contract the underline, and an ill-fitting saddle can make that task impossible," he explains.

Many behavioral and training problems while riding are actually the horse trying to tell us that the saddle hurts. Stepping away, anxiety, pinning ears, biting and kicking while being saddled are ways that the horse lets us know he dislikes saddling. These behaviors could also be due to a bad rider, a physical problem or an emotional issue, so pay attention to your horse when he exhibits them. Some horses may not readily show their discomfort, but they may bodily compensate to avoid the discomfort, leading to lamenesses and other problems later on. The fit of the saddle definitely affects the comfort, attitude and performance of the horse, so a correctly fitting saddle is essential to your horse’s well being.

How does one fit a saddle to a horse, or a horse to a saddle? Fitting the tree to the horse's back and rib cage is the key. There are many factors that come into play, so enlisting the help of the experts, the saddlemakers and fitters, is the logical way to proceed. Getting a custom-made saddle may or may not be the best approach. Says Dave, "This can also be a big mistake because sometimes custom makers will make a tree fit the problem, locking the horse into it."

A new saddle is an important investment, so it is best purchased wisely and with the help of a professional. It takes experience, a good eye for fit, knowledge of the horse and rider, and knowledge of the product. Dave says, "At our facility in beautiful southern Minnesota, we design and manufacture fine saddles and other leather goods. We use old-fashioned care and natural materials to produce saddles for the modern horse's back and the type of conformation man prefers. Our objective is to fit your horse with a saddle that will help him move freely while also helping you to sit comfortably."

There are various types of trees, each with their unique advantages and disadvantages depending on their uses, but most important is the fit. Says Dave, "If it fits it is fine. Basically, it should be completely off the shoulder, and there should be contact along the Longissimus dorsi muscles (the muscles that run on both sides of the spine) and on the ribcage, with the contact coming off in back." Looking down the gullet, there should be room above and beside the spine, between the 'bars' or panels from pommel to cantle, to allow for movement and bend. Dave says, "The function of the bars of the tree is to distribute weight." The bars, therefore, should never be on the spine. Another consideration is that few horses are built the same on both sides, so side-to-side differences in the horse's shape must also be addressed. Says Dave, "But not with the saddle; this has to be addressed in the training. However, the saddle should allow for a fairly large range of change." 

How can a saddle be properly fitted to a horse without bringing the horse to the saddlemaker? Says Dave, "Tracings, pictures and molds can be used, but that can mean guess work." Some saddlemakers prefer the horse to come to them and others prefer going to the horse. Some will do restuffing at your location, and may even set up appointments for regular 'saddle fit' checkups. In some cases the saddle fit can be improved by restuffing, if the tree is a good fit. Modern technology scanning and pressure-measuring devices can be valuable in assessing saddle fit by detecting pressure points. Even though the eye may not detect unevenness, the horse will most likely feel it. And Dave says, "Ultimately the rider needs to learn to feel it." 

Can padding, such as thicker blankets under the saddle, make a saddle fit better? The purpose of saddle pads and blankets is to absorb sweat and to help absorb shock. Dave says, "A saddle pad, if used appropriately to change the shape of the saddle, may make a saddle fit better, but if used to absorb shock, no, and in fact it could actually make fit worse." A pad may also help to make up for slight seasonal weight fluctuations and muscular development. Many horses have seasonal weight gains and losses, which are actually healthy, natural, and common in horses who live naturally on pasture. Says Dave, "I believe that when fit properly, a saddle fits the rib cage. As weight is gained it lifts the saddle with it, so I do not believe that normal weight gain and loss affect proper saddle fit, if the saddle is properly designed." English girths with elastic at both ends (not just one) can also help by allowing the horse's rib cage to expand, which will increase his comfort.

There certainly are a lot of things to consider when fitting your horse with a saddle. A new saddle can be a joy to own, but before you spend money buying a saddle off a rack somewhere, you may want to consider consulting a professional saddlemaker and fitter first. A new saddle is an expensive purchase that should bring you and your horse many years of riding pleasure, if you make your purchase wisely.

Natural Horse Magazine thanks Dave Genadek for his help in preparing this article.

About The Horse, Inc., a saddle manufacturer promoting excellence in horsemanship through knowledge

PO Box 667

224 2nd Ave. NE

Spring Grove, MN 55974