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Wrangling on the Range #144

Expert Saddle Fitting



From "Horse -Canada" - May/June 2005

From the Experts

Although an expensive investment, a well-fitting saddle is
priceless insurance for your horse's comfort, health and

by Karin Apfel with Penny M. Lloyd DYM., Helene Jenny and Ian

Poor saddle fit is one of the most common causes of back pain in
the ridden horse. The signs can be overt or subtle, often
manifesting as "cold" backs, "cinchiness", poor transitions, poor
stride, bucking, especially when asked to canter, and secondary
lameness due to movement restriction and added concussion. Spinal
lesions (kissing spine) can occur due to the bone on bone contact
of an inverted spine and the resultant postural changes can
result in lameness. Visible indicators of poor saddle fit are
dry, swollen, or rubbed spots on a horse's back after being
ridden. In chronic cases you may see white spots or scar tissue
that indicate a loss of circulation to the area.

If your horse has a sore back or is showing any of these
symptoms, the first step is to have someone knowledgeable
evaluate your position. Rider position, which may be affected by
uneven stirrup length, poor posture (for example, unlevel
shoulders or slumping to one side) or poor balance can create
pressure points under the saddle. Sitting too far forward or too
far back in the saddle will also cause instability and uneven
pressure. Both constant and intermittent pressure in concentrated
areas can cause bruising, irritation and loss of circulation.
Poor circulation can lead to inflammation, pain and dead skin and
muscle cells.

Once the affect of the rider has been eliminated or corrected,
evaluate the fit of your saddle to see what changes you may be
able to make in your current situation or whether a different
saddle is in order.

Checking the fit

To check saddle fit, your horse should be standing squarely on
level ground with his head forward. Place the saddle on the
horse's back without a sad-

(Sweat and dirt stains can show areas of pressure on a clean
white pad or sheet).

(A western saddle tree showing where the rider's weight will

dle pad or blanket and without the girth done up. The saddle
should not rock back-to-front nor side-to-side. Next, take your
flat hand with the knuckles up and feel under the saddle at the
edges of the panel. There should be even pressure front to back
and top to bottom under the tree. With some of the lighter
saddles, you may need to push down a little on the saddle with
your other hand. The next step is to use a clean, white saddle
pad on a slightly dirty horse to show the distribution of sweat
marks after riding. There should be no dirt or sweat marks in the
gullet area, at the front under the pommel or where the sweat
flaps meet the panels. Both sides of the pad should show
symmetrical marking. Uneven pressure distribution and saddle
instability can be the result of inadequacies in the following


The tree transfers the rider's weight and the weight of the
saddle to the horse's back. It must be the correct width and
length to conform to the horse's back and the two sides of the
tree must be symmetrical.  The tree should rest only on the large
muscles on either side of the spine, not the spine itself or the
ribs. A too-narrow tree will often sit too high in the front and
a too-wide tree will allow the saddle to drop too low on the
spine and withers. Trees that are extremely wide or too narrow
are also unstable and may shift on the horse's back. If your
saddle pad is slipping or bunching up, you may have this problem.
If you have a young, thin or under-muscled horse and only wish to
buy one saddle, buy a saddle with a slightly wider tree. A
thicker saddle pad will help it fit until increased muscling and
weight gain take place.

The tree should be long enough to spread weight as far as
possible without interfering with the withers or resting on the
loins. Saddle length is largely determined by the size of the
rider. However, in short-backed horses, some longer western
saddles may sit too far back. If the rider cannot fit in a
smaller saddle, a longer-backed horse will need to be considered.

Check also to make sure the skirt lacing on a western saddle is
not pressing down on the spine at the back (even with a pad
between). If this is occurring, you can remove the lacing or have
a saddler cut the skirt down.

When buying a used saddle in particular, it is extremely
important to ensure that the tree is not broken or crooked. Turn
the saddle upside down and sight down the panels for bumps or
deviations. With all saddles, to check the solidity of the tree,
place the cantle on your hip or thigh and pull the pommel towards
you. It should not move significantly. With English saddles, you
should also press the two sides of the saddle together to check
for cracks at the pommel.


In an English or Australian saddle, it is important that the
flocking in the panels be evenly distributed with a comfortable
firmness. The panels should not feel lumpy or have areas where
the flocking is firmer than in other areas. In older natural wool
saddles, repeated moisture absorption and temperature changes may
have caused felting in spots (these will show up as a bump or
hollow) and the flocking will need to be replaced. The
consistency of good quality natural wool or synthetic wool
flocking should be similar to a foam-flocked saddle. Wool will
conform to a horse's back better than a foam pad, and can be
adjusted by a skilled saddler if there has been shifting or if
the horse's back conformation has changed, increasing the life of
the saddle. If the saddle is "bridging" - meaning a palm can be
slipped into a space under the center when it is on the horse's
back - then wool stuffing can be adjusted into that low area to
fill the gap. But this is only good for fine-tuning. It cannot
correct a poorly fitting tree. Air-filled panels are a more
recent development that scan very evenly with computerized
pressure mapping and conform well to the horse's back.

(The channel space or gullet should be 2 - 3" wide and over the
length of the saddle).
It is crucial that he front of the saddle not interfere with the
withers. A two to three finger space is recommended with a rider
in the saddle).

Channel Space or Gullet 

The channel space must be wide enough from front to back to avoid
any pressure on the horse's spine. It should be two to three
inches wide along the saddle's whole length. ***Channel space in
treeless saddles must be double checked after a rider is mounted
as these saddles can spread enough to cause contact with the

Wither Clearance

The front of the saddle should clear the top of the withers by at
least an inch. You should be able to insert two to three fingers
(stacked) between the saddle and the withers with the cinch
tightened and a rider up.

Saddle Placement

The saddle should be placed with the tree behind the back edge of
the scapula, so that the shoulder has freedom of movement. The
scapula or shoulder blade moves back when the foreleg is extended
in front of the horse. When checking saddle fit, pull the horse's
leg forward to see if there is interference with the saddle at
the shoulder.

If the saddle sits too far forward on the withers, the angle of
the seat is also changed. Seat angle in all types of saddles
should be level. If a saddle slopes down at the back, the rider's
weight will be off-balance and create pressure at the cantle. If
the saddle slopes to the front, pressure is increased at the
withers. The saddle should naturally sit in a low area of the
back on the average horse. Gently wiggle the saddle down and back
from the withers until it stops sliding.

Evaluating Success

Once you have done what you can to improve saddle fit, you should
see improvements in the following:

1. The horse's response to saddling/cinching. This may not
improve immediately, as the horse may still be anticipating pain
even when the pressure points are alleviated. In addition, any
bruised or inflamed areas may take time to heal.

2. Forelimb extension should be greater.

3. The tracking of the hind legs should be even and increased.

4. You should find uniform sweat patterns on the saddle pad.

5. There should be a reduction in bucking or referred lameness.

If lameness that you believe is due to back pain persists, have a
chiropractor or veterinarian investigate and recommend treatment

Jiggle the saddle backwards gently until it comes to a stop and
the seat is level.

Dr, Penny Lloyd received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from
the University of Saskatchewan in 1988, followed by certification
in Acupuncture, Chiropractic and Homeopathy. Currently, Dr. Lloyd
is in private equine practice in Colorado, integrating
conventional and holistic techniques.

Helene and Aldo Jenny own Cariboo Outback Saddles and Supplies in
Williams Lake, BC. They have been breeding and riding Peruvian
Paso and Spanish Mustang horses for over 18 years and found that
Australian saddles were the perfect fit for their shortbacked
horses, giving, them more freedom to move.

Ian Coxworthy is a Master Saddler who customizes and repairs
saddles of all types at his Richvale Saddlery store in Schomberg,

Saddle Pad Tips

If you have a well fitting saddle, very little padding is needed.
In fact, if you have a saddle that fits very well, too much
padding can create pressure points. Dr. Lloyd gives the analogy
of a shoe that fits properly with one pair of socks. Putting on
an extra pair of socks or thicker socks can create sore spots. A
different saddle pad can temporarily help a poorly fitting saddle
situation because the pressure point has been moved and the horse
finds relief until the new area becomes sore. However, it cannot
resolve poor fit permanently.

Some tips to help saddle fit:

* When purchasing a saddle pad, the best option is one that is
contoured to the horse's back. It should be made of two pieces
and sewn at the topline.

* After placing the saddle on the pad, reach into the gullet and
pull up on the pad before tightening the cinch. This will' keep
the pad from pressing down on the withers or spine.

* Avoid using layers of pads. There is more opportunity for
bunching and shifting. The top layer can push down on the lower
layers. Pads that do not fill the channel space are more
comfortable to the horse.

* Pads should be kept clean to prevent irritation of the skin and
the development of stiff areas on the pad. Rinse all traces of
detergent out as it can cause skin soreness, especially in
thin-skinned horses such as thoroughbreds and Arabians.

* Pad inserts can be used to modify saddle fit, but should be
used with caution as there is plenty of room for error. They
should be attached and adjusted by your saddler. For example, a
rafter backed horse, in which the spine protrudes into the
channel, can be helped with inserts attached on either side of
the spine. Various thicknesses of inserts can also help with

* For horses engaged in high-impact activities, a shock absorbing
pad can reduce pressure on the horse's back.

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