Understanding Saddle Fit

Do we underestimate the impact of ill-fitting tack on our horses? Learn how to recognize and address saddle fit problems.
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Do we underestimate the impact of ill-fitting tack?

saddle research trust conference; My Saddle Doesn't Fit My Horse...Now What?
It’s crucial to involve a saddle fitter when your horse’s body has changed for any number of reasons. | Alexandra Beckstett/The Horse

Some analogies compare the equine back to a violin. The horse’s spine is the wooden body of the instrument, and the muscles are the strings. When the horse’s muscles and other soft tissues move the spine, the structures must stretch and extend accordingly for the entire instrument—the back—to function. The horse’s ability to engage and use his back depends on well-­developed and healthy musculature. Underutilized, atrophied, or spasmodic or otherwise painful muscles disrupt the animal’s locomotion. Unfortunately, this kind of muscle damage often occurs due to a common, often-overlooked culprit: ill-fitting saddles. In this article we’ll tackle the process of recognizing and addressing saddle fit problems to help you be sure your equine partner has a pleasant experience in the tack.

The Importance of a Saddle That Fits

Imagine running a 5K with sneakers that are too small and tight for your feet, causing blistering pain with every footfall. Or picture a track-and-field athlete attempting to navigate a course of hurdles while wearing tightly buttoned jeans that dig into the skin and cause uncomfortable friction at the seams. These struggles are similar to those horses endure in the hands of well-­intentioned but ill-informed riders—and even trainers. Undoubtedly, pain, lameness, muscle atrophy, and behavioral resistance in the ridden horse can all be linked to an improperly fitting saddle. With so much potential for harm if fitted incorrectly, saddles deserve the attention of the professionals on your horse’s team—­veterinarian, bodyworker, and saddle fitter.

When it’s Time to Call a ­Pro

“It’s crucial to involve a saddle fitter when your horse’s body has changed for any number of reasons,” says Jenna Shipley, of Shipley Equine Services, a certified equine bodyworker and saddle fitter based in Carmel, New York. Like most independent professional saddle fitters, Shipley recommends a routine saddle checkup at least twice a year. She names a few scenarios that might affect this schedule and warrant dialing your saddle fitter’s number:

  • Extreme weight gain or loss. This can include significant muscle loss from a period of inactivity, decreased nutrient intake, or even systemic illness.
  • Starting (or restarting) a horse under saddle. Commencing training with properly fitted tack is better than fixing problems down the road.
  • Rehabbing a horse after a period of stall rest due to injury. Shipley says the shape of the topline will change when transitioning from inactivity back to work and encourages horse owners to have saddle fit evaluated throughout the rehabilitation process.
  • A change in riders. “Crooked riders make crooked horses,” says Shipley. Researchers have shown riders who are too large for the saddle, out of balance, or crooked create uneven force distribution across the tack (Bondi et al., 2019). “These unbalanced riders can actually change the quality of their tack, creating unbalanced, asymmetrical saddles,” she says.

Furthermore, ill-fitting saddles can create a “vicious cycle,” our sources say. “Horses with saddle-induced back pain can have the shape of their back change, often dramatically, in a short amount of time, from the associated muscle atrophy,” explains Shipley. “We have to remember how dynamic a horse’s musculoskeletal system is, how much it responds to its environment.”

Erin Contino, MS, DVM, Dipl. ACVSMR, associate professor of equine sports medicine and rehabilitation at Colorado State University, in Fort Collins, echoes these observations: “Whether from saddle fit issues or underlying back pathology (disease or damage), horses with back pain will often ‘turn off’ their stabilizing muscles, causing them to atrophy. Many horses with back pain will appear to have lost muscle mass over their topline rather quickly.”

As a general rule, Shipley recommends more frequent saddle fit checks for horses in a dynamic program—green horses that are still maturing, athletes rehabilitating from an injury, or horses experiencing a variable workload throughout the year—than those in a static program. This latter group is governed by consistency: These horses have a steady workload throughout the year, and their bodies are less likely to change rapidly.

Realistically, many horse owners look for more practical and cost-effective alternatives to having their saddles ­professionally ­evaluated and adjusted as frequently as every couple of months. Researchers’ findings suggest certain saddle pads can in some cases reduce pressure on the back (Kotschwar et al., 2010).

“I do see value in some half pads that come with the ability to have shims added and subtracted, as they can be particularly useful during these times when the horse’s body is changing a lot,” explains Shipley. “The reality is that although corrective saddle pads can temporarily improve the fit in certain cases, they can’t be a permanent solution.” And more padding isn’t necessarily harmless—layering on various pads to correct a gullet or tree that’s already too narrow will only make matters worse, similar to adding thick socks to your tight shoes.

How to Evaluate Saddle Fit

Our sources list eight elements to assess:

  1. Saddle balance. The saddle must be balanced from front to back and from side to side to avoid putting excessive pressure on any portion of the horse’s back or shifting with movement. 
  2. Panel contact. Both panels should make full, even contact with the horse’s back. Full panel contact prevents the saddle from rocking back and forth. It also helps distribute the rider’s weight evenly across the horse’s entire back, ending just before the last vertebrae (typically the 18th thoracic vertebrae—T17 in some horses—which is the point of junction for the last rib). If the panels are flocked with wool, they can be reflocked to address imbalances. Foam panels, on the other hand, do not offer that option.
  3. Wither clearance. “Lack of wither clearance is one of the most common issues I see in performance horses,” says Shipley. It’s easy to see why a saddle that puts direct pressure on or around the horse’s sensitive, bony withers hinders range of motion and causes pain. A horse whose saddle pinches his withers might be reluctant to move forward and might show behavioral signs of pain such as kicking out and bucking.
  1. Gullet width. How wide or narrow the gullet is dictates the weight distribution of the rider across both sides of the horse’s back. The width of the horse’s individual spine and musculature at the withers should dictate gullet width. Researchers have confirmed excessive padding can make an otherwise well-fitting gullet too small (Bondi et al., 2019).
  2. Tree width. “The tree points located at the front of the saddle should mirror the angle of the horse, allowing the shoulders to rotate comfortably,” says Shipley. “If the tree is too narrow, it will restrict shoulder movement and likely cause pain. If the tree is too wide, the entire saddle will be unstable and have excess pressure at the front of the saddle. It may rock or slip from side to side, or the back half of the saddle may twist to one side or the other.” As their names indicate, saddles with adjustable trees can be modified, to some extent, to fit the horse. Traditional saddles—those without the built-in adjustable tree option—need to be replaced if the tree no longer fits the horse.
  3. Billet alignment. The billets—the leather straps to which the girth connects on both sides of the saddle—should be perpendicular to the ground. Being pulled too far forward or too far back by the girth will alter the fit of the saddle and might also cause unnecessary pressure and movement at the front or back of the saddle. In Western saddles the same concept applies with the cinch strap or latigo.
  4. Seat size. The pommel of the saddle must be at least 2 inches (or three fingers) behind the back of the scapula, providing enough freedom for the shoulder blades to move backward during extension. In both English and Western disciplines, the saddle panels should not extend farther back than the 18th thoracic vertebrae and last connecting rib into the lumbar spine region. A saddle of improper length, front to back, interferes with the balance of both horse and rider.
  5. Tree integrity. This last one is easily overlooked. “If you buy a used saddle, or if your horse falls or rolls with the saddle on, have that piece of tack checked by a professional,” says Shipley. “Otherwise, a broken tree could go unnoticed for weeks or even months, causing damage to your horse’s back and risking the rider’s safety. On a related note, if a stirrup catches on something and pulls on the saddle, that stirrup bar can bend, putting sharp and uncomfortable pressure on the horse through the saddle.”

Addressing Back Pain: The Role of Therapeutic Modalities

To break the cycle of saddle-induced pain and dysfunction, rider and trainer must remedy the root cause of the problem—­saddle fit—before any treatments can provide lasting results. “No therapeutic modality can fix poorly fitted tack,” says Shipley. “Massage is just a Band-Aid if the fit is not being simultaneously addressed. From personal experience doing equine bodywork, I’ve worked on many sore backs that would improve by the end of the session, only to be braced, reactive, and sore after the very next ride in the ill-fitting tack.”

That’s not to say therapeutic modalities such as massage and pulsed electromagnetic field therapy (PEMF) don’t have value in detecting and mitigating ongoing problems, our sources say. “Oftentimes it’s actually these practitioners of therapeutic modalities who first discover the subtle signs of ill-fitting tack and can refer the client to a saddle fitter,” says Shipley. “By working on the horse, they can detect cues such as asymmetrical back pain, girth area sensitivity, or subtle changes of the hair over the back.”

Both Shipley and Contino encourage a holistic approach to rehabilitation from saddle-induced back pain. “In most cases the horse has muscle dysfunction all throughout the body as a result of compensating for their painful backs and not using their bodies properly,” Shipley explains.

Contino adds that even once you remove the “nidus” (in this case, a poorly fitted saddle), these back muscles that have switched off as a result of pain don’t switch back on automatically. Thus, the long-term physical consequences of ill-fitting saddles largely depend on what is done to reengage the back muscles. If you don’t act, the horse might end up in a downward spiral where he continues to lose muscle mass and strength. But if you do introduce interventions such as core strengthening exercises, the back muscles can return to normal function and strength, limiting long-term consequences. Shipley goes as far as recommending a full rehabilitation program for horses that have had poor saddle fit for a considerable amount of time. Some severe cases might even require giving the horse time off from riding before starting again in new or properly fitted tack, she says.

Looking Ahead: Long-Term Impact of Poor Saddle Fit

“The majority of horses with poorly fitted saddles have pain, or at least soreness, in the muscles on either side of the withers,” says Contino, naming specifically the spinalis muscle and part of the trapezius muscle. “Fortunately, once the saddle fit issue has been corrected the muscle soreness often resolves. However, in some instances, if a saddle or pad … is actually directly ­contacting the withers, a pressure wound can occur in which case, even when it is healed, scar tissue would remain. Scar tissue is less elastic than normal connective tissue and, thus, there may be limited gliding of the skin over the underlying tissue.”

Take-Home Message

Much like a pair of good shoes, good tack that fits your equine athlete properly makes all the difference in both comfort and performance. Learn to observe and advocate for your animal. “Feel his back regularly, and learn what’s normal for him,” says Shipley. “Reactivity over the back often indicates a tack fit issue.” Many horses are stoic and show no outward, behavioral signs of pain. “But a high pain tolerance does not mean they are not feeling pain,” she says. Attentive examination and early intervention by a professional are the keys to resolving saddle fitting problems before they cause bigger issues.

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Written by:

Lucile Vigouroux holds a master’s degree in Equine Performance, Health, and Welfare from Nottingham Trent University (UK) and an equine veterinary assistant certification from AAEVT. She is a New-York-based freelance author with a passion for equine health and veterinary care. A Magnawave-certified practitioner, Lucile also runs a small equine PEMF therapy business. Her lifelong love of horses motivated her to adopt her college care horse, Claire, upon graduation.

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