Assessing Saddle Fit in Sport Horses

Dr. Sue Dyson shares her tips for ensuring your horse’s saddle fits well and doesn’t interfere with his performance.
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Assessing Saddle Fit in Sport Horses
Here, the gullet is too narrow, the saddle tips forwards and bounces up and down, and the saddle is slipping to the right. | Photo: Courtesy Sue Dyson, MA, VetMB, PhD, DEO, FRCVS

Your horse’s diminished performance has you worried. He’s not lame, he’s not injured, but something’s just not right. After watching you ride, a friend recommends you evaluate the fit of your horse’s saddle—maybe it’s not comfortable for him. Great idea, you think, but where do I start? Don’t worry. We’ve got you covered.

Sue Dyson, MA, VetMB, PhD, DEO, FRCVS, reviewed what to look for when assessing saddle fit at the 2015 World Equine Veterinary Association Congress, held Oct. 8-10 in Guadalajara, Mexico. Dyson is the head of clinical orthopaedics at the Animal Health Trust Centre for Equine Studies, in Newmarket, England.

Before delving into specifics, Dyson said there are a few principles that should hold true for every well-fitting saddle:

  • There should be no focal contact points; rather, the saddle should have even contact on the horse’s back.
  • The gullet should completely clear the horse’s spinous processes.
  • The saddle should not move when it’s placed and secured on the horse’s back, nor should it restrict the horse’s movement.
  • The fit of the saddle to the rider should allow the rider to be in balance

The rider is standing in the stirrups assessing clearance by the gullet at the wither by inserting her fingers under the front of the saddle. The gullet is too low causing pressure on the spinous processes. | Photo: Courtesy Sue Dyson, MA, VetMB, PhD, DEO, FRCVS

So how can you determine whether a saddle fits the horse properly? Dyson offered the following tips:

  • First, she said, assess the saddle both off and on the horse, before, during, and after exercise. Some issues might only manifest themselves when the horse canters or jumps, for instance, so evaluate the horse and saddle as thoroughly as possible.
  • Ensure the saddle’s flocking is symmetrical. Uneven flocking can cause pressure points and other saddle-fit issues.
  • When looking at the saddle on the horse, ensure the tree does not extend beyond the horse’s last rib (generally the 18th rib bone, though Arabian horses only have 17 ribs). Dyson noted that the seat of the saddle can be longer than the tree to accommodate a larger rider. She also said correct fit can be easier to achieve on horses with longer backs than shorter ones, but that qualified saddle fitters can help find an appropriate saddle for the hard-to-fit horse.
  • Evaluate where the saddle’s tree points (which contact the horse on either side of his withers) lie in relation to the horse’s scapulae, bearing in mind that the scapulae rotate backward as the forelimbs move forward. The tree points should not impede the scapulae’s movement, though Dyson noted that it’s acceptable for some of the saddle’s flap to lie over the scapula as long as it doesn’t impact movement.
  • Look at the alignment of the deepest point of the saddle’s seat. It should be horizontal to help keep the rider balanced. If the seat tips forward or back, the rider is more likely to become unbalanced, which is harder for the horse to carry. Further, evaluate the rider’s position in the saddle. He or she should be aligned through the shoulder, hip, and heel, and his or her pelvis should be square and centered. Dyson also noted that the width of the saddle’s seat should be appropriate for the size of the rider (not too wide or too narrow) for him or her to ride comfortably and balanced.
  • The panels and the tree points should lie parallel to the horse’s sides, Dyson said. If the panels and tree points are too narrow, the saddle will perch on the horse’s back, she said.
  • The panels should also have even contact on the horse’s back. She said this can be evaluated by palpating the back under the panels; by putting talcum powder on the panels, then putting the saddle on the horse’s back and seeing how it lies; and by using pressure mats. Uneven contact can lead to pressure points and uneven weight distribution.
  • Ensure the saddle doesn’t contact the top and side of the withers, Dyson said. She stressed evaluating this without and with a rider and with the rider standing in the stirrups, as this places maximum pressure on the saddle and, thus, the horse’s back.
  • It’s important to check the position of the saddle pads before and after the horse works, Dyson said. Pads that slide back or ride forward indicate poor saddle or pad fit and can create pressure points on the horse’s back. Also take a good look at the girth’s position before, during, and after exercise. It should hang vertically from the saddle, perpendicular to the ground, without interfering with the elbow. If the girth is to far forward, it can pull the saddle forward.

Saddle that is too tight at the points
A saddle which is too tight at the points which perches at the front and the seat tips backwards. Further the half numnah (half pad) created a ridge under the front panels of the saddle. | Photo: Courtesy Sue Dyson, MA, VetMB, PhD, DEO, FRCVS

  • Remember that the gullet’s width needs to be appropriate for the horse’s back dimensions. A narrow Thoroughbred might not have the same back shape as the broad Warmblood in the next stall, so ensure each horse’s gullet meets his individual needs.
  • Additionally, evaluate the shape of your horse’s back, abdomen, and thorax, Dyson said. On barrel-shaped horses, for instance, saddles often slide forward and tip upward at the back.
  • Knowing what issues you could be faced with in advance can help you pinpoint them while you’re assessing saddle fit. And be aware that not all brands of saddle will fit all horses’ shapes.
  • Inspect and palpate the horse’s back before and after exercise. Dyson instructed attendees to evaluate muscle development and symmetry, look for any white or ruffled hair, and identify any focal pain or swelling that could indicate a poorly fitting saddle.
  • Also after exercise, evaluate the sweat patterns on the horse’s back and saddle pad. Dyson said horses should sweat uniformly under tack and that focal dry spots are indicative of pressure points.
  • Watch closely for changes in how the saddle sits as the horse transitions through the gaits and jumps. She reminded attendees that back dimensions can change during exercise and noted that the saddle must be able to accommodate such changes. Additionally, note any excessive saddle movement during exercise.
  • Finally, observe how the horse behaves when he’s being tacked up. Horses with ill-fitting saddles might show more unwanted behaviors—such as nipping or kicking—than horses with properly fitting tack.

Following her presentation, an attendee asked Dyson how to deal with a poorly fitting saddle. She encouraged practitioners to work with the horse’s owner and a qualified saddle fitter to ensure the saddle fits the horse and correct any issues. “We can’t do it alone,” she said.


Written by:

Erica Larson, former news editor for The Horse, holds a degree in journalism with an external specialty in equine science from Michigan State University in East Lansing. A Massachusetts native, she grew up in the saddle and has dabbled in a variety of disciplines including foxhunting, saddle seat, and mounted games. Currently, Erica competes in eventing with her OTTB, Dorado.

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