Horses and People speak with Hazel Morley of The Society of Master Saddlers, the most influential professional saddlery-related organisation in the world, about the importance of saddle fitting and why you should use a Society of Master Saddlers Registered Qualified Saddle Fitter.

A correctly-fitted saddle

Just a few years ago ‘saddle fitting’ was something in which the vast majority of horse owners displayed little interest. It was only when something went wrong that they called in the services of a saddle fitter – and, even then, it could be somewhat reluctantly.

Things have changed and for the better. Today’s riding public has far greater awareness of the important part the saddle plays in terms of welfare, comfort and successful performance.

A well-designed, well-made and well-fitting saddle is an excellent tool. On the other hand, a saddle that is poorly designed, one that has inherent manufacturing defects or one that doesn’t fit well is, at best, a hindrance and, at worst, a disaster in the making.

What you need to know about saddle fitting

  • Your saddle, new or second-hand, should be fitted by a Member of the Society of Master Saddlers. Their first consideration will always be the horse. This may mean that you need to adjust any preconceived ideas you may have about your own preferences in relation to make and design.
  • If you must use a saddle cloth or gel pad, the saddle fitter must be informed at the time of the original inquiry – and always before the saddle is fitted. Adding any layer under a saddle which fits well without it, is akin to putting thick insoles into shoes that fit perfectly without them!
  • Each horse should have its own saddle. Just as a pair of shoes adapts to the wearer’s foot, so the saddle adopts the contours of the horse. Ill-advised riders use one saddle on several horses because ‘It cuts down on cleaning’ or ‘I ride better in that particular saddle’, without pausing to consider the possible consequences.
  • It may be possible to adjust your existing saddle to fit your new horse, but the advice of a qualified saddle fitter should always be sought.
  • Your horse changes shape regularly. The frequency of these changes will relate to his age, training, management and so on. Try to develop an eye to recognise these changes. Viewed on a daily basis, the changes may seem inconsequential but, over a period of just a week or so, they can be surprisingly substantial. Have your saddle checked – and any necessary adjustments made – regularly.
  • ‘Feed’ your saddle carefully. Insufficiently treated, the leather will dry out. Fed too much, the dressing will not be absorbed and the saddle will be unpleasantly sticky – possibly marking your clothes, or worse, causing the saddle stitching to rot. The regularity with which the saddle requires ‘dressing’ relates to usage, weather conditions and so on.
  • The young horse must be fitted especially carefully. His or her back is ‘virgin territory’ and very precious. Great care must be taken to avoid any damage that may cause problems later in life. Young horses should never be lunged in any old saddle (‘It doesn’t matter, no-one is going to ride in it’). The young back is particularly vulnerable and a swinging/bouncing saddle that doesn’t fit – and may even be damaged – can be the cause of veterinary problems that may be irreversible. Recognise too that some young horses develop at a substantial rate and the saddle that fitted well only a short time previously may need adjustment.
  • The standard ‘general purpose’ saddle is a compromise and can never fulfil the needs of individual disciplines as well as saddles designed-specifically can.
  • Unlevelness, even slight, in your horse’s gait – especially behind – can cause the saddle to move/gyrate, thus possibly exacerbating the existing problem.
  • Mounting from a mounting block should not be restricted to the less-than-athletic! It is infinitely better for the horse’s back and guards against the saddle tree becoming twisted – quite easy to happen if the saddle is regularly used as a lever.
  • When mounting, the rider’s weight should always be lowered gently into the saddle – never ‘thump’ or ‘bang’.
  • If you insist on mounting from the ground be aware that the stirrup leathers should be changed from side to side regularly to avoid the near-side leather becoming longer/stretched.
  • Saddles should be carefully stored on a well-made saddle horse or rack. Never position saddles where they can be knocked off the rack. Appreciate that lifting a saddle onto a very high rack can damage your own back – and often results in the saddle being stored lop-sidedly.
  • Great attention must always be paid to the condition of the saddle flocking. Irregular, uneven or lumpy flocking can cause pressure points that may seriously damage the horse’s back. Severe irregularity in the flocking can cause the saddle to sit to one side. Correct flocking provides a cushioning effect that helps to reduce trauma. Over-stuffed, the saddle will be hard, will not adapt to the horse’s back and may cause pressure sores or sensitivity.
  • The saddle must always be level when viewed from the side. Anything else compromises the horse’s comfort and welfare. A saddle that sits ‘up-hill’ will make the rider sit too far back. One that is ‘down-hill’ will encourage the rider onto the fork.
  • When viewed from the front and rear the saddle gullet must always provide adequate clearance – both before and after the horse is exercised.

Most equine and some home contents insurance can be extended to include theft of tack. Some policies even include accidental damage. These are important considerations – but do read the small print ‘exclusions’ carefully before signing up.

It is important to ask the saddler to check any saddle in use when a horse falls. ‘Hidden’ damage may be substantial and broken or cracked trees can be difficult to detect. Likewise, if the saddle falls from the saddle rack or is dropped it should be checked over by a qualified saddler.

The size of the stirrup irons should be checked when a different rider exercises the horse. Irons that are either too small or too large can be the cause of serious accidents.

Weak or defective stitching on any part of the saddle should be repaired instantly. Saddles should be checked every time they are used; equal attention should be paid to girths and leathers.

The saddle fitter’s visit

Planning ahead and providing the ‘right’ facilities helps the saddle fitter to give the best possible service. Ideally, you should fulfill the following criteria:

  • A flat, hard surface where the horse can be stood up and run up in-hand.
  • An area where the horse can be ridden. Saddle fitting can take a considerable time and the saddle fitter is likely to want the horse owner to ride in a number of short-listed saddles – an essentially important part of the fitting procedure.
  • Show jumping and cross-country: If you are opting for a saddle designed specifically for dressage, polo or showing, it is very unlikely you will be wanting to use the saddle for jumping! If you are considering purchasing a saddle that will involve jumping, it is essential to ride over a few fences.

The rider:

Although this will appear remarkably obvious to the vast majority of riders, it is a fact that some riders believe their presence at the saddle fitting session isn’t a necessary factor! Then again, some horses are ‘shared’ or ridden regularly by more than one person and, in this case, both riders should be present.

Suitable clothing:

Sometimes clients are unsuitably dressed. Jeans and trainers are always inadequate and they certainly aren’t the most comfortable clothes in which to try out short-listed saddles!

Other considerations

The Society of Master Saddlers generally cautions that the well-fitting saddle does not require the addition of anything under it, with the possible exception of a thin saddle cloth. There are, however, exceptions to every rule. When there is a valid reason for using a saddle cloth or gel pad the saddle fitter will need to know, so he or she can allow for the addition.

Have your own stirrup leathers and girth available. The saddle fitter will be carrying girths of various types and sizes, but it is a good idea to have your own available. Using your own stirrup leathers is generally more comfortable and avoids the possibility of the saddle fitter’s new leathers becoming marked and, therefore, difficult to sell.

Groom your horse. The saddle fitter would obviously prefer to preserve the condition of his new saddles but, in addition, the marks left on the well-groomed horse’s back after removal of the saddle are significant, because they indicate bearing surfaces and further identify unwanted movement. When the horse is ill-groomed, the marks left by the saddle may be blurred or indistinguishable.

Finding a saddle fitter

Society of Master Saddlers registered, qualified saddle-fitters will be either a member of the Society in their own right or employed by a member. They will have been fitting saddles for a minimum of three years and hold the Society of Master Saddlers Qualified Saddle Fitters Certificate. To find a local saddle fitter worldwide and for more information, visit: