How to Tell if Your Saddle Hurts Your Horse

In recent years, researchers have conducted several studies that make one thing crystal clear: A properly fitting saddle is key to keeping any ridden horse healthy and performing at its best. But how, exactly, can you tell if your saddle doesn’t fit your horse?

At the 2016 American Association of Equine Practitioners’ Convention, held Dec. 3-7 in Orlando, Florida, Scott Anderson, DVM, reviewed how veterinarians and owners can tell if the saddle is causing a horse pain in six easy steps. Anderson is a sport horse practitioner and owner of Woodside Equine Clinic, in Ashland, Virginia.

“The initial examination is performed with the horse standing squarely and without a saddle pad,” Anderson said. Then, he said, place the saddle on the horse’s back so the front of the flaps don’t interfere with the scapulae’s (shoulders) movement when the horse is working. This is usually 3 to 5 centimeters (about 1 to 2 inches) behind the scapulae, he added.

Once your saddle is in place, you’re ready to start your evaluation.

Step 1: Is the saddle level? Or, is the deepest point of the seat horizontal to the ground? This doesn’t necessarily mean the pommel and cantle will be even to each other, however. If your saddle has an uphill appearance, Anderson said, the tree is likely too narrow for your horse. Conversely, a downhill appearance is indicative of a too-wide tree.

Step 2: Does your saddle rock forward and back? Put one hand on the pommel and another on the cantle, applying alternating pressure to see how much the saddle moves forward and back. Ideally, Anderson said, it should remain fairly stable. “If the saddle rocks forward and back it is a sign the tree is too wide or the panels are too curved,” he said. “If this is the case (tree is too wide) there is usually a lack of contact at the rear of the saddle.”

Step 3: Is there adequate pommel clearance? The pommel shouldn’t rest (or come near to resting) on top of the horse’s withers. Although the amount of space between the withers and the pommel will vary based on saddle type and horse conformation, there should be clearance between the pommel and the top of the wither when the rider is in the saddle.

Step 4: Is there consistent contact between the withers and the tree? While the pommel shouldn’t contact the top of the withers, the tree should contact the sides of the horse’s withers. “Ideally, the contact should be over a broad surface area without areas of focal pressure,” Anderson said. Slide your hand between the withers and the tree and feel for 4 to 5 inches of smooth and consistent contact. If most of the contact is located near the top, the saddle is too wide. If most of the contact is farther down, it’s likely too narrow.

Step 5: Is there consistent contact between the panel and the back? Slide your hand between the panel of the saddle and the horse’s back to check for pressure points, bulges in the panel, and areas without contact between the two.

Step 6: Does the horse’s back look healthy? “If the horse has been ridden regularly and recently in the saddle being evaluated, examination of the back for patterns of pain, swelling, rubbed hair, and coat and skin abnormalities is helpful,” Anderson said. Additionally, palpate the horse’s back—including the scapula and spinous processes—to look for signs of pain, such as moving away from the pressure or excessive muscle contraction.

He cautioned that while back soreness can be due to an ill-fitting saddle, it can also be caused by general pain or discomfort. “Ideally, the examiner should look for focal patterns of soreness, often bilaterally (on both sides), that correlate with saddle problems found earlier in the examination,” he said.

Next Steps

Once you’ve identified a saddle fit problem, it’s best to work with a professional saddle fitter or a veterinarian well-versed in saddle fitting to find a solution, Anderson said.

Additionally, he encouraged attendees to carry out saddle fit evaluations on a regular basis.

“Saddles change with use, especially if employed on multiple horses,” he said. “If the saddle is wool-flocked, it will need to be reflocked with use. A saddle that fits a horse well at one time can eventually fit poorly due to changing back conformation or atrophy (muscle wasting). As a horse’s musculature develops with age and exercise, the saddle may need to change, as well.”

Real-World Saddle-Fit Problems

Anderson said that practitioners at his clinic used the previously described steps to evaluate 50 saddles in 2015 and found that:

  • 12 saddles had no obvious fit-related problems;
  • 23 had trees that were too wide;
  • 6 saddles bridged (meaning they only made contact with the horse’s back at the pommel and the cantle);
  • 5 had trees that were too narrow;
  • 3 needed to be reflocked; and
  • One saddle’s panels were excessively curved.

Regarding the horses that wore those saddles:

  • 20 exhibited saddle-related soreness on palpation;
  • 5 showed adverse behaviors such as aversion to tacking, dropping down during mounting, and misbehaving under saddle; and
  • One horse was lame due to saddle pressure on the back of the scapulae, but became sound again when the saddle was removed.

Take-Home Message

“The saddle has a great effect on the comfort and performance of the horse,” Anderson said. “Evaluation of the saddle allows the examiner to ensure the saddle is not a source of pain.”