Saddle Fit

Fitting a saddle correctly to a horse’s back can be confusing and frustrating, Harman says, because so many variables are involved.
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Wearing boots or shoes that don’t fit properly can be both uncomfortable and painful. So much so, in fact, that few of us will tolerate the condition. Instead, we quickly will locate or purchase footwear that is comfortable. The good news is that as articulate humans with, generally speaking, enough disposable income available, we not only can express ourselves concerning the problem, but also take steps to solve it.

The horse which carries a rider in an ill-fitting saddle is not so fortunate. Eventually, in its own way, the horse will articulate that it is suffering as a result of the ill-fitting tack, but it remains dependent on the rider or owner to do something to remedy the problem.

A practitioner who has involved herself with in-depth studies of saddles and proper fit is Joyce C. Harman, DVM, MRCVS, of Harmany Equine Clinic, in Washington, Va. Harman has presented papers and discussions on the subject, including a presentation at the 1997 meeting of the Association of Equine Sports Medicine in San Antonio, Texas. She also has written extensively on the subject, including authorship of a book on saddles and proper fit.

“Saddles are the necessary evils of the competition horse,” says Harman. “A saddle is a rigid structure that connects the dynamic structures of the horse with the rider. The fit and position of the saddle affect the movement of the horse and the ability of the rider to communicate his or her wishes to the horse. Saddles contribute in a major way to the poor-performance syndrome and to the behavior and lameness problems seen in horses in every sport.”

Fitting this basically rigid structure correctly to a horse’s back can be confusing and frustrating, Harman says, because so many variables are involved. There also is the matter of cost. Few horse owners can afford to have a specially designed saddle for each horse in the stable. Or, if they own only one horse, it often isn’t economically feasible for them to obtain a new saddle if the current horse is sold or traded and another one obtained.

While the saddle in general isn’t a modern invention, it has not always been in use by horsemen. Historians tell us that the Romans were among the first to use saddles in their cavalry in about 400 AD.

Some of the most daring and savage warriors ever to sit astride a horse were the hordes led by Attila The Hun. They swept across Europe like a scourge, defeating what, at the time, were modern and sophisticated armies. Attila’s warriors didn’t have saddles and frequently rode their horses into battle sans bridles.

These warriors were so skilled that they could ride bareback at full speed and, at the same time, fire off volleys of arrows from over or under their horses’ necks. Their only aid, other than powerful legs and exceptional balance, was a loop of braided or knotted mane through which they might thrust an arm.

Because they guided their horses with seat aids and legs, both hands were left free to handle their weapons.

A key reason that these superb horsemen eschewed saddles was fear that the objects would make the horse’s back sore, rendering the animal unable to travel the many miles required during their ambitious raids. These warriors often traveled hundreds of miles with each man utilizing three horses. As they rode, they kept switching from horse to horse, stopping for only short breaks for themselves and for the horses to graze.

Apparently these warriors felt that one saddle would not fit all three horses. Besides, they also knew that as they traveled and fought, their horses would change shape. Generally speaking, as the campaign wore on, the horses would lose weight. Therefore, a saddle that might be a perfect fit at the beginning of a given month would not fit well at all by the end of the month.

Unfortunately for the horse, humans that followed in the wake of these ferocious wanderers decided that if they were to ride, they would do it in saddles. In the early days, saddles were of the European variety, minus saddle horn, skirting, fenders, and rear cinches.

The opening of the West required a saddle that was stronger and more suitable for traveling great distances through rugged, mountainous terrain. Thus, the Western saddle was born of necessity.

The true forerunner of today’s Western saddle was designed by craftsmen in what today is Santa Fe, N.M. It was a bare wood structure with high fork, cantle, horn, and rigging straps. Not only could it carry the rider, but it was designed so that other items, such as a bedroll, could be tied to it.

That was the beginning, but far from the end, of Western saddle design. As time went on, saddle design continued to change, first, to meet the needs of the work-a-day cowboy, then the rodeo contestant, and finally, the rider who was seeking a comfortable seat when heading down the trail for an outing aboard his or her favorite horse.

The construction of saddles soon became big business, with major companies turning them out by the thousands. Today, there still are individual saddlemakers who can skillfully fashion a saddle to fit a particular person and horse, but the majority of saddles are factory-produced.

With mass production, problems with proper fit have surfaced. It is virtually impossible for a horse owner to walk into a tack shop and select one saddle from the dozens being offered and know for certain that it will fit the horse for which it is being purchased. The only way to know for sure is to place it on the horse’s back and ride in it. Unfortunately, this can result in the saddle’s being marked or marred, and many tack shops won’t permit tryouts.

Padding The Problem

Many riders attempt to correct a saddle fit problem with a pad. That rarely works, says Harman: “Numerous saddle pads are on the market to try to solve the fitting problem; however, the majority of them create more problems than they solve. Putting a pad across the withers under a saddle that is already too narrow can be compared to putting on thick socks inside a pair of shoes that are already too small. The pressure actually increases and muscle atrophy is often the result. A saddle properly fitted with a pad to act as an interface and shock absorber can be a big help to these horses.”

When a saddle is improperly fitted or placed in the wrong position on the horse’s back, soft tissue pain in the neck and back often results. With that pain come behavioral problems.

Signs Of Pain

“There are many causes of back pain,” says Harman. “One of the most frequent is saddle-induced pain, either from a poor fit or improper positioning.”

However, she adds, back pain can be induced by the rider or other outside factors, even if the saddle is properly fitted and positioned. “Other causes are lack of rider balance, resulting from the rider’s body pain; lack of rider skill; unbalanced hooves; or mouth pain from sharp teeth, rough hands, or a harsh bit. These result in a horse’s hollowing its back, inverting its neck, and constantly attempting to evade the rider. Optimum performance requires all aspects of the horse and rider to be in order.”

When the horse is suffering from a sore back, either because of an ill-fitting saddle or rider-induced pain, the results can be either mild or disastrous–ranging from a casual protest when saddled to turning into a bucker that puts the rider’s life and limb at risk.

Harman offers the following list of signs or signals that indicate a horse is suffering from soft tissue pain in its back:

  • Objection to being saddled.
  • Difficult to shoe.
  • Does not move much in field, or bucks and rolls excessively.
  • Being “cold backed” during mounting.
  • Being slow to warm up or relax; slow to leave the starting gate.
  • Resistance to work.
  • Difficulty doing lead changes.
  • Difficultly collecting and maintaining impulsion.
  • Resistance to training aids or requiring training aids to keep them in a “frame.”
  • Excessive shying.
  • Lack of concentration on rider and aids, varying from mild to unmanageable.
  • Rushing to or from fences and/or refusing jumps.
  • Knocking jumps down.
  • Rushing downhill or pulling uphill with the front end–unable to use the back or hindquarters properly.
  • Inability to travel straight; twists over fences.
  • Unwilling or unable to round the back and or neck properly and athletically.
  • Swishing the tail, pinning the ears, grinding the teeth, or tossing the head.
  • Hypersensitivity to being brushed or touched.
  • Exhibiting a bad attitude, especially getting worse as time passes.

“Many, if not most, of the training difficulties encountered in training horses can be traced to saddles resulting in back and neck pain,” says Harman. “These signs (the above list) are messages from the horse that something is not right. There are surely other signs that have not been mentioned, but may be demonstrated by the horse. If a problem is suspected, start with checking the saddle to see if that is the possible origin of the problem. If it is, then a correctly fitted saddle will bring about a rewarding increase in performance.”

Before rushing out to buy a new saddle if your horse is demonstrating some of the signs and signals outlined by Harman, it would be wise first to have the horse’s back examined by a veterinarian in an effort to pinpoint the problem and its location. The layman can learn to do this, but unless one is fully aware of muscle structure and the reactions to stimuli, the results can be confusing.

A sound approach, says Harman, is to palpate firmly along the middle of the longissimus dorsi (muscles running along either side of the spine) with one or two fingers three to four inches lateral to the spine.

“If pain is present in this area, which is actually one of the major acupuncture pathways,” she explains, “there will be some degree of performance compromise. Pain reactions vary from mild contracture of the surrounding muscle or a slight muscle fasciculation (muscular twitching) at a few points to severe sinking away from the pressure accompanied by hardening of the longissimus dorsi. The common reaction of ‘splinting’ (bracing the back muscles so they do not move) is a frequent response in many horses because it hurts less when the painful muscle is held rigid than when it is moved.

“This splinting of the back is sometimes misinterpreted as not painful because the horse does not appear to sink away from the pressure. Some horses splint their backs so hard they almost buck. These horses also often buck when ridden, especially during warm-up.”

While it might require a person trained in the technique to examine and properly interpret results when checking the back for soreness, there are other signs so obvious that even the most unlearned of laymen can interpret them.

Harman gives the following as her list of some obvious signs:

  • Obvious sores.
  • White hairs under the saddle.
  • Temporary swelling after the saddle is removed.
  • Scars or hard spots in the muscle or skin.
  • Atrophy of the muscles on the sides of the withers.

The telltale white hairs under the saddle are seen on many horses, especially in areas where they are used a good deal for roping.

“The white hairs appear as a result of pressure from a saddle and may be the only visual sign that a problem exists,” says Harman. “The pressure alters the hair follicle, which then produces a white hair. If the damage is not too severe, and the pressure is removed, the white hairs may disappear at the next coat change; however, many times enough damage is done to the hair follicle that the white hairs become permanent. The only solution is to change the saddle fit.”

Properly Fitting The Saddle

We now come to the matter of properly fitting a saddle to a horse’s back. The basic factors to be considered when examining a saddle for proper fit, says Harman, are these:

  • The structure of the saddle.
  • The position of the saddle on the back.
  • The contact of the panels against the horse’s back–absence of bridging. (Bridging occurs when a saddle is too far forward or too narrow. A bridge is created on the shoulders and back of the saddle with the rider’s weight becoming improperly distributed on four points–one on each side of the withers and one on each side of the back at the rear of the saddle.)
  • Whether the panels are wide enough for good support.
  • A wide gullet to clear the spine completely.
  • The fit of the tree to the horse’s back, especially across the withers.
  • Whether the saddle sits squarely in the center of the back.
  • The levelness of the seat.

“The structure of the saddle is extremely important,” says Harman, “but the manufacture of saddles has seldom included quality control. Therefore, many new saddles are purchased with serious defects, such as twisted trees and/or panels and flaps installed asymmetrically. The initial cost of the saddle seems to have no bearing on the number or severity of structural defects to be found. Examine the saddle carefully from all angles to check for balance and symmetry.”

Once a correctly made saddle is purchased, the next step is to position it correctly on a horse’s back.

“The position of the saddle on the back is the most critical aspect of saddle fit,” says Harman. “The most common mistake made is to place the saddle too far forward. This position places the rigid tree over the top of the scapula, which significantly restricts the movement of the front legs. If the saddle is moved back to the correct position, the stride generally will lengthen immediately.

“When an English saddle is placed too far forward, the pommel is too high. This causes the seat to slope down towards the cantle and places the rider’s legs too far forward and in an unbalanced position. The rider then tries to level the seat with pads under the back of the saddle. When a properly fitted saddle is in the correct position without any pad, the seat becomes level.

“Western saddles, when too far forward, exert enormous pressure on the top of the scapula, but the seat is often balanced because of the design of the saddle. Moving the saddle back to the correct position frees the scapula. When the saddle is moved off of the shoulders, on some Western saddles, the seat will become better balanced; for others, it will tip the rider forward. Also, it is common for the pommel to become too close to the withers. Compact styles, such as those used in barrel racing and those designed for Arabians, are easier to move into correct position.

“If the saddle, no matter what type it is, does not fit, no change in position will correct the problem.”

The panels or underside of the saddle is the area where the weight is carried on a saddle that fits. Correct fit and positioning produce evenly distributed weight bearing.

The important thing, says Harman in continuing her discussion of conventional saddles, is that a saddle’s panels be wide enough to offer good support without losing the contour needed to fit the horse’s back.

It is also highly important, she adds, that the gullet be wide enough to allow the spine complete freedom from pressure and to allow the spine to bend slightly during movement.

“The angle of the panels,” says Harman, “needs to follow the angle of the horse’s back under the cantle. Many saddles have too acute an angle, putting pressure on the outer corner of the panel, creating pain in the center of the longissimus dorsi. English saddles need to be reflocked (restuffed) every year or even more frequently to maintain good contact with the horse’s back. The saddle must sit squarely down the middle of the back, supported by the panels, as the spine is not designed to carry weight directly on it. There is no muscle covering the spinous processes to cushion the hardness of the saddle and the hardness of the spinal processes. Pressure can lead to bone pain and to degeneration of the dorsal spinous ligament. Some preliminary diagnostic data from England indicate that damage to this ligament may be common and may be an important factor in back pain.”

A significant aid in determining saddle fit, says Harman, involves making certain that the saddle is level when viewed from the side. Saddles that are not level will render the rider out of balance and she or he will be unable to ride correctly.

“A saddle that is too narrow,” Harman points out, “will sit up too high at the pommel since the tree is too narrow to follow the contours of the withers. This pitches the rider’s weight to the cantle and the rider’s legs forward, one of the most common rider faults. A saddle that is too wide will tip forward or down at the pommel, pitching the rider forward and the rider’s legs back behind the vertical.”

Saddles that are too wide at the pommel also are in danger of resting on the withers, an area not designed to bear weight. Pressure on the withers can cause severe soreness and even a raw, open wound.

Using a ruler to measure a horse’s back can help in obtaining proper saddle fit, says Harman: “To measure the horse’s back, a flexible ruler from a stationery store is a tool that is easy to use and works well as a rough guide to the fit of the tree. This can be molded to the shape of the horse’s withers, then a drawing made on cardboard and cut out. By holding the cut-out shape of the withers inside a saddle, a general idea of whether the saddle will fit can be obtained.”

Complicating the whole saddle fitting picture is the fact that a horse’s shape changes across the withers as it rounds into performance condition after a winter off.

“Horses in hard competition change shape basically three times throughout the competitive season,” says Harman. “They start out heavy and wider when they are unfit, lose weight and become average in mid-season, and can get thinner and more narrow late in a hard season.

“This is when saddle fit becomes a very complicated issue. Eventually an adjustable tree saddle will be made that will solve these problems, but those presently on the market do not work very well and are not very durable. One has come out that may be promising. It has a changeable bolt in the tree that alters width.”

It is obvious from the foregoing that fitting a saddle properly and having it remain that way are not easy propositions. Proper saddle fitting requires knowledge of equine anatomy and saddle construction. Also required is observation on the part of the rider to learn if and when an ill-fitting saddle is causing soreness.


Written by:

Les Sellnow was a prolific freelance writer based near Riverton, Wyoming. He specialized in articles on equine research, and operated a ranch where he raised horses and livestock. He authored several fiction and nonfiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse. He died in 2023.

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