My Saddles Doesn't Fit...Now What?

How to find a fitter, buy or modify a saddle, and recognize the right fit

It’s clear from the dry pressure spots and general back soreness that the saddle you bought a decade ago for your now-retired show horse doesn’t fit your new prospect. But you don’t want to rush out and buy a new one for a horse whose body is still changing as he matures.

How can you find a saddle that fits or modify your existing one for the time being? How do you know when you’ve found the right fit—for both you and your horse? It’s probably time to seek a saddle fitter’s help.

Finding a Saddle Fitter

Mike Scott, an equine massage therapist and Master Saddlers Association–certified saddle fitter based in South Carolina, has trained extensively with saddlers in England and the United States. He opened his own School of Saddle Fitting and Flocking in 2006. He explains that while there are no standard qualifications for calling oneself a “saddle fitter,” in the U.K. fitters can get certified with the Society of Master Saddlers (SMS) and in the United States with the Master Saddlers Association (MSA) program.  

Some saddle fitters are affiliated with certain brands, selling one company’s saddles to their clients—these are known as company reps. “The MSA claims to be independent but trains their fitters to sell a certain brand of saddle,” Scott says, adding that the course he teaches is an independent program involving all types of saddles and focusing on equine anatomy and physiology. “We are not claiming to diagnose physical problems but to be aware of what is going on with a horse—to determine whether a problem is caused by the saddle or if it’s something we need to get a veterinarian involved with to help the horse.”

reflocking saddle

When choosing a saddle fitter, ask about that individual’s credentials and where he or she went to school or with whom he or she trained. “If they trained with a fitter or saddler who knows what they are doing and did an internship, worked in the shop, and gained experience and understanding, they certainly could be a good saddle fitter without a piece of paper stating their certification,” says Scott.

Sarah Odell Fredrickson is a horse trainer and equine massage therapist who became a saddle fitter through MSA to help her clients. She trains and rehabs horses of all breeds and disciplines at her farm on Bainbridge Island, Washington. “While rehabbing and reschooling horses, I started saddle fitting because that is part of the whole picture,” she says.  

If you know your saddle doesn’t fit but think it can be altered and improved, she suggests first going to your existing saddle company’s rep. If you’re in the market for an entirely new saddle, she says to contact several brands’ reps and try different saddle lines to see which best fits both you and the horse.

“It is worth the time and investment in demo rides and fittings to find a saddle that fits and feels good for you,” says Odell Fredrickson. “Know yourself and your horse, so you can help that person identify issues they can work on. Any good saddle company will be able to accommodate most if not all the many shapes of horses’ backs with their panel options. The saddle fit for you and the ride it gives you is very personal and should be given attention. A bad fit for your body will affect your ride and work against you and your horse.”

The Importance of the Team Effort

Now that you’ve pinned down a saddle fitter to help, make sure you have a strong veterinarian-led team that communicates well. Beyond your vet and fitter, his might also include your trainer, the body worker/therapist, chiropractor, and farrier. “That’s a way to ensure we can do the best for the horse,” Scott says.

This is because there’s more to the saddle fit picture than just the tack. For example, says Odell Fredrickson, the saddle might take the blame when the actual problem stems from the horse’s long toes and low heels or a club foot causing an altered gait and, with it, the saddle to shift. Or, sometimes the problem is a rider with heavy hands that never lets the horse reach for the bit.  

“You will see things like pockets (atrophied or overly tight muscles) behind the withers, ewe necks, and hunters bumps from those situations, but the saddle becomes the culprit,” she says. “If you address the saddle and not the actual cause you’ll only get so far with saddle fitting. That being said, I’ve worked with horses where it really is just the saddle causing problems, and proper fitting helped tremendously.”

So, it takes a team effort to determine what’s best for each horse. The veterinarian can rule out lameness or other issues; the farrier might need to balance the feet; and equine body workers can help relieve muscle soreness throughout the process.

Modifying Your Existing Saddle

Most riders would undoubtedly try to modify their saddles to fit their horses before shelling out thousands of dollars for brand-new ones.

“Much of the work I do is trying to modify saddles to keep making them work, at least until the rider can buy something else,” says Scott. “The average price of a good-quality (English) saddle is between $4,500 and $5,000. Not everyone can spend that much, so I try to work with people, within reason. If their saddle is in good shape—everything is sound on it including the billets, the tree, etc.—they can get by with it if the horse is going well and is not sore,” until they can save money for a new custom saddle or find the correct saddle, new or used.

These modifications might include:

  • Reflocking by replacing old, compressed wool or foam in the panels with new wool. Compressed panels have lost their resilience and can be hard on the horse’s back.
  • Widening or narrowing the tree, if possible, particularly on “adjustable” saddles.
  • Replacing unsafe or shifting billets (the straps the girth buckles attach to). “We see billets that have gravitated way up toward the front, and if you tighten those too tight, the back of the saddle will lift up, pop, and slide,” says Scott. “We might be able to put another billet system on that saddle to evenly disperse the pressure so the saddle sits more level on the horse’s back.”
    Western saddles can have similar issues. “I always recommend using your back cinch or an extra long latigo (the strap that connects the cinch to the saddle’s rigging) and Y-rigging it through the front and back D rings on your saddle,” says Odell Frederickson. “Both help hold a bouncing saddle on the back.”
  • Adjusting seat size using a seat saver or cover, which can make the seat feel smaller and more secure. “Some companies will actually go in and pad out the seat to fit the rider better,” says Odell Frederickson. With Western saddles, “I find this helps put the rider up in a better balanced place if the seat is too long for them.”

Another reason to go the modification route before buying a completely new saddle is that horses’ backs change shape over time and with training. As the animals mature, the withers tend to catch up with the hips in height, and muscle develops over the tops of the shoulders and the back. On the flipside, as they age, the back tends to sink, becoming hollow behind the withers. Then there are the adult horses advancing in their training or work, or changing careers, whose backs change dramatically as new muscling develops.

“When I’m helping someone purchase a saddle for a 3-year-old horse, unless money is not an issue, I generally steer them away from buying a new, expensive saddle,” says Scott. Again, a used saddle that fits—or one that can be modified to—can work until the horse matures. If you bought a good-quality used saddle and keep it in good shape, you can recoup that money and put it toward a new saddle.

And don’t forget that how you ride can also create fit issues that are partly fixable via saddle modifications. “If you sit heavy to one side, you might compress the saddle more on that side, causing it to move and shift,” says Odell Fredrickson. “A saddle fitter can help rebalance the saddle if that issue has affected the panel.”

While fitters can make similar modifications to both England and Western tack, Western saddles tend to be easier to fit than English, says Cordia Pearson, an SMS-certified saddle fitter in Stacy, Minnesota. She calls Western saddles “very generous,” referring to their comparatively larger size. “We look at the square inches of contact that a saddle offers, and the larger the contact area, the less pressure per square inch,” she says.

Shimmable pads

Playing With Padding

Before altering the saddle itself, some people try to adjust its fit by using a different pad or combination of pads.

“Be creative,” Odell Fredrickson suggests. “Have several things you can play with. Don’t be afraid to get on and off the horse 10 times during a ride and try different things until you find what the horse tells you he’s comfortable with.”

Scott says the many pads and shims (inserts that fit into the pad) on the market can be a saddle fitter’s best friend, but they’re not a panacea. “If a saddle sits a little low (not right down on the withers, but the cantle-to-pommel balance is off), and you’ve added wool or foam but still need a little more lift, a shim could work until the horse develops more muscling on either side of the withers,” he says. “I use shims as a therapeutic tactic, but they can become a problem when people think they can make any saddle fit your horse.”

Pearson warns against buying “magic” synthetic pads that claim to fix poor saddle fit. “There are charlatans who are charging a lot of money and claim to be able to fix any saddle problem,” she says. “I have worked with horses that have been hurt by those pads, with damage to the back muscles.”

She says she prefers using pads that are 100% wool—an “incredibly forgiving, cushioning, and absorbent” material. But she does reach for ThinLine shimmable saddle pads for temporary help for horses coming back from injury or growing, noting that she feels the pads help dissipate force over more area of the back, just as the saddle tree is designed to do.

Saddles

Saddle Shopping

When modifications and pads fail, it’s in your and your horse’s best interest to invest in a new saddle. But don’t start ­bidding on fashionable saddles on eBay or making offers on Facebook fire sale posts just yet. Take time to find the saddle that’s best for your horse.

“It’s more important to fit the horse first, then deal with the rider,” says Pearson. “If the horse is uncomfortable, the rider will never have a good ride.”

If you try to save money by purchasing the cheapest saddle you can find, you’ll likely be paying for it later with veterinary and farrier bills (because the horse is now sore or traveling “off”), bodywork, or injections, says Scott. And don’t get hung up on one brand or style, either.

“In some boarding/training barns there’s a trainer who is sponsored by a saddle company to sell their saddles,” says Scott. “It is unfortunate when I walk into a barn and everyone in that barn has the same saddle and same model, because they don’t fit all those horses.”

To find the best solution, Scott suggests having a fitter come to you (or even trailering your horse to the tack shop), take horse and rider measurements, and try out several types of saddles to find something that fits both individuals. 

If you plan to buy a saddle from a particular company or online store, make sure it includes a trial period. “The money spent to have a fitter come look, to make sure everything is good before you actually purchase the saddle, is the best money you’ll spend,” says Scott. “People come to me with three or four saddles that they have on trial, and we often eliminate several and hopefully choose one that will work.”

What’s the Perfect Fit?

Throughout the saddle-shopping or tweaking process you might wonder when you’ll know you’ve found the right fit. Again, this is where a professional set of eyes—preferably a trainer and an unbiased saddle fitter—can help.

Scott says you can take certain steps to tell if it fits: “These include how it feels to the rider, the horse’s response (how he reacts when you put the saddle on and girth it up), balance, size, bearing surface (over the horse’s back), cantle to pommel relationship (depending on the type of saddle), tree-point angles, whether there is good withers clearance, whether the gullet is wide enough, and so on.”

Once you have a pretty good idea that the saddle fits the horse, you can focus on yourself. “Most people subconsciously know when they are in the right saddle,” says Scott. “They will just sit down and feel very comfortable. You want the right size flaps and the seat to be big enough or small enough. Make sure the balance is good,” when you’re in the saddle, too.

Out With the Old

Again, you might be able to sell your existing saddle to help offset the cost of a new one, but there’s one caveat.

“If I look at your old saddle and determine that the tree is crooked or there is a problem with it, I recommend that you don’t sell it,” says Scott. “I may offer to take it for $50 to dissect and use in my school, to teach students about saddles and problems.”

If a saddle is sound, but the wrong fit for your horse, Scott suggests giving it a deep clean (and conditioning), writing a detailed description with all the measurements, and selling it in-store or online.

“The fitter might take it on consignment (for a commission) and sell it for you,” he adds. “Or you ask the corner tack shop if they will sell it on consignment. They might take 20 to 25% for their ­commission.”

Pearson says that in the Twin Cities area, horse people post items for sale on a local equine mailing list. She also recommends websites such as Tacktrader.com or HorseClicks.com.

Take-Home Message

A professional saddle fitter is often the best guide to finding the right saddle for you and your horse and the best judge as to whether your current saddle fits or can be adjusted to fit. Incorporate one of these qualified individuals into your horse health care team when searching for the perfect saddle fit.