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Teach yourself to evaluate saddle fitting and recognise problems to ensure good welfare and maintain performance with this handy guide.
Finding the correct fitting saddle is essential to ensure good welfare and maintain performance. Check the fit regularly and listen to your horse and your own comfort.
Saddle fit dos and don’ts
- Do use a qualified saddle fitter. The most widely recognised saddle-fit accreditation is from the United Kingdom’s Society of Master Saddlers.
- Do make sure the fitting includes ridden exercise because horses may change shape as they work.
- Do aim to fit a new saddle when your horse is in a shape and condition which they’re likely to maintain.
- Do make sure you, as the rider, feel comfortable in the saddle and in balance with your horse.
- Do assess the fit with the saddle pad or saddle cloth, not the saddle alone.
- Do test the saddle under the conditions that you expect it will be used.
- Don’t ever buy a saddle without trying it on your horse.
Poor saddle fit, early signs:
- Muscle soreness under or behind the saddle. The horse may flinch when being groomed or behave abnormally when being tacked up.
- Dry patches under the saddle surrounded by sweat following exercise.
- Areas of swelling under the saddle following exercise.
Poor saddle fit, long term indicators
- Depressions behind the scapulae (shoulder blades) or elsewhere under the saddle. These may reflect long-term saddle fit issues and pressure points.
- White hairs appear when pressure has injured the hair follicles but note that they usually do not appear until the hair coat changes.
- Dry patches under the front of the saddle surrounded by sweat following exercise.
- Scabby skin lesions under the front or back of the saddle.
How to assess saddle fit yourself
You should always get a qualified saddle fitter to fit and check saddles, but here are some things you can check yourself between visits…
- Check length: The tree of the saddle should not extend beyond the top of the last rib (T18). This can present challenges with ponies and short-backed horses. (But note that jumping saddles are longer in the seat than dressage saddles to allow for a more horizontal thigh position.)
- Check width: The saddle should not tip back or forward on your horse’s back.
The saddle should remain central on your horse’s back in walk, trot and canter, with the seat parallel to the ground. A little movement from side to side is normal, but the saddle should not slip or swing from side to side, or lift off the back.
The rider must be able to sit centrally in the seat, not tipping forward or back. When your legs hang, they should not drift forward or backward. You should be able to stand in the stirrups and maintain your balance.
The gullet should not make contact with the spine when a rider is on the saddle. Check at least two fingers (3cm) can be inserted under the pommel when the rider is standing in the stirrups, both before and after exercise.
The front of the tree (the point of the saddle) should stay approximately 5cm behind the top of the back of your horse’s shoulder blade. Ruffling of the hair underneath the saddle could indicate undesirable movement.
The bearing area (panels) should be in contact all the way along the back.The panels of the saddle must smoothly follow the curve of your horse’s back to fit well.
Saddle use dos and don’ts
- Do remember that using layers and pads to correct a poorly fitting saddle can temporarily reduce signs of discomfort because the pad relocates the pressure points. But the improvement is usually transient, because new pressure points soon develop as a result.
- Do be aware using the same saddle on more than one horse is not ideal and should be avoided, unless the horses have similar back shape.
- Do recognise pain elicited by feeling or grooming the back may be an indicator that back shape changes have occurred and saddle-fit should be reassessed.
- Do seek professional help if something doesn’t feel completely right regarding your saddle’s fit!
This article is a summary of a more detailed article by Drs Line Greve and Sue Dyson. You can read more detail here.
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To ensure you are fully covered, specify your saddle on your existing horse insurance policy!